Join Elissa Schufman and Ruby Levine for a discussion of the novel The City & the City by China Miéville. It starts off as a murder mystery police procedural, but the themes go much deeper than that.
Connect with us
- The interview mentioned in the episode
- Streets.mn articles by Elissa
- Ruby’s profile on StoryGraph
- May’s book club: The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.
This episode was hosted by Elissa Schufman, and was edited and transcribed by Tim Marino, who just joined the podcast team. Everybody say hi to Tim in the comments! We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Elissa: [00:00:01] Welcome to the Streets.mn Podcast Book Club, where we use books to foster conversation, reflection and imagination about better places in Minnesota. I’m your host, Elissa Schufman. I’m an abolitionist, a lifelong sci fi fiction and fantasy reader and a Minneapolis resident. Today I have here with me Ruby Levine. Do you want to introduce yourself Ruby?
Ruby: [00:00:23] Hi. I would love to. My name is Ruby. I use she and her pronouns. I am a trivia host, a licensed social worker, an auntie and abolitionist and resident of Minneapolis. And I’m really excited to talk to you about this book.
Elissa: [00:00:39] Me too. It’s a good Streets.mn Book because it’s just like there are so many themes around cities and transportation and like place and what place means, and I feel like we could probably talk about it for a very, very long time. This month’s book for the Quarterly book Club is The City and the City. I’m not going to recap this book, but I will note that like we’re going to talk about the book and assume that you as a listener have read it or are okay with spoilers. So if you are not okay with spoilers, you may want to pause and come back. This book had a lot in it. It’s a it’s a murder mystery. There’s corruption, there’s a whole lot. And I am not sure where to start, but I guess I will start by asking Ruby, what did you think of this book? What was your experience of reading this book?
Ruby: [00:01:20] Well, I do just want to mention, because when I talked about this book with people, they often are confused. It’s “the city and the city”, not “the city in the city” by China Miéville. And I read this book in like 2009 maybe, and then I hadn’t read it again, but I was I remembered really liking it. And then I read it again for this podcast, and I had completely forgotten that it was from the perspective of the police, which I feel very differently about now than I did when I was in college. I have learned a lot more about the police and I don’t find them as fun to read about as I once did. So that was a surprise. But I think this book is very effective. I think it’s a very gripping and I think it kind of has both this really fascinating backdrop, which is what I had remembered about it, which we’ll will dig into for people who didn’t read it. And this very like straight ahead, murder mystery that’s kind of taking place in the in this Miéville. Sorry I know a lot about China Miéville because.
Elissa: [00:02:38] Good cause I don’t, someone needs to.
Ruby: [00:02:40] Great! He doesn’t identify as a science fiction writer. He identifies as a weird fiction writer, and all his books are kind of in different genres. So like Perdido Street Station is probably his most famous book is like Lovecraftian, I guess like a marxist Lovecraftian Story in Space.
Elissa: [00:02:59] And the Scar?
Ruby: [00:03:03] I didn’t read the Scar.
Elissa: [00:03:04] Oh, it’s very good.
Elissa: [00:03:05] Kraken?
Ruby: [00:03:07] I did read Kraken. The ending of Kraken made me mad.
Elissa: [00:03:12] I don’t remember the ending of Kraken, but it was the first book of his that I read.
Ruby: [00:03:15] But yeah, I think I’ve always I’ve always appreciated that. His books, he’s a white working class British dude. As far as I know, his given name is China Miéville. I don’t think it’s a pen name, which is kind of surprising. I assumed it was a pen name. I think he identifies as a marxist, if not some kind of anarchist socialist somewhere in there. And I think I always really appreciate that his books come from inside of that. Like, there’s always something I really recognize in like, this is not a person who has an idea of what an activist is. This is a person who has been an activist. And like where that comes up, it’s very honest.
Elissa: [00:04:03] Yeah,
Ruby: [00:04:04] What did you think?
Elissa: [00:04:04] Yeah, I think his work is it is really recognizable in the way that you describe, even though the particular settings for his books are like widely variable, there is something really recognizable about his writing. And it’s interesting because like this, right? The city and the city is not his most famous book, but I think it’s the most awarded book that he’s written. It won a Hugo Award, it won a Locus award, it won an Arthur C Clarke Award. I think it was nominated. No, I think it won the British Science Fiction Association I don’t know if people sort of shorthand that the world fantasy award, like all the awards when it came out in 2009, which it sounds like you read it right after it came out.
Ruby: [00:04:44] I’m so on the cutting edge.
Elissa: [00:04:47] That tracks with what I know about you, Ruby I don’t know. It’s interesting because I think in some ways it’s one of the most normal of his books that I’ve ever read. Right? And this is like getting into the plot a little bit, but like. When you get to the end of this book like. There’s this this question and this tension throughout the book of like what is breach, Right. So for folks who didn’t read the book, there’s this. They have like cops with different departments, as we know, cops. And then there’s also this like special organization agency in existence that they call breach.
Ruby: [00:05:22] I think we have to explain the premise of the book.
Elissa: [00:05:25] That’s fair.
Ruby: [00:05:28] There are two cities. I’m not confident about how you pronounce either of them. They are vaguely Eastern European. I’m going to call one of them Ul Qoma and one of them think it’s Besźel Because he says that the Americans say it. Bessel And that’s wrong. They’re Canadian. Sorry. Sorry.
Elissa: [00:05:49] It’s a Z with an accent over it. I feel like you can be very forgiving.
Ruby: [00:05:53] Yeah thats a ź, But I think. I don’t know. It’s different.
Elissa: [00:05:57] We’re all learning together here as people who live in the United States.
Ruby: [00:06:01] I’m going to just do my best. But. So the protagonist, Borlú lives in Besźel, and these two cities interlock. So you can walk down the same street and go through both cities. So it is not allowed in a way that it is unclear from the book whether it is like cosmically unallowed or like legally unallowed to look or smell or observe or touch from one city to the other city, even though they’re immediately next to each other all the time. And breach is the force that governs that arrangement. And it’s unclear for most of the book whether because, I mean, China Miéville often gets shelved in science fiction. So it’s unclear whether this is like a law, like gravity or a law like there’s cops and it turns out drum roll, it’s just cops. But can I read you this quote?
Elissa: [00:07:08] I love a read quote.
Ruby: [00:07:10] So this is from the very end of the book. I mean, this is literally the third to last page from when Borlú is talking to someone from Breach, which for most of the book, it’s not even clear if breaches people like.
Elissa: [00:07:24] It seems like it might be just this like supernatural force.
Ruby: [00:07:27] This breach officer is saying you did an excellent job. You see how we work? Nowhere else works like the cities. It’s not just us breach keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch. It’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and sensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault for more than the shortest time, you can’t come back from that. I think that is what is so powerful about this book as it relates to cities and spaces and policing. As you read the book, you kind of see that this is like a ludicrous way to live, that people are constantly not just pretending that they don’t see but like actively erasing from their own minds the evidence of their own senses because authority has told them to. And they’ve seen what happens when people break those rules, like if you breach. So like people are driving on the same streets and if you have a car accident across the two cities, that’s breach. And it’s both like the action and the force that police it are both called breach. So you’ve seen that this policing force. Will swoop in. It is real, but it’s the cop in your head that makes it work every day.
Elissa: [00:08:49] Yeah. And it’s really interesting to go through the process of right like you as a reader in reading the book, sort of go through this parallel experience of imagining being a person who lives in one city or the other city, right? Even though they’re like geographically in the same place, the like second guessing that the people in the characters in the novel are doing about what breach is or what breach isn’t and the consequences that they think they might experience as a result of having committed breach or someone else having committed breach. Yeah, there’s just this interesting parallel for for me at least as a reader of going through this like second guessing exercise of like, Oh, I have this piece of evidence. So I think breach works this particular way and now I know what to expect. And then something else happens and I’m like, Actually, I don’t know what to expect. What is going on here? Both imagining what it would be like in this particular set of circumstances, and then also reflecting on like what that is, right. Like what that is in present day in the city where I live. What that looks like. Because part of what makes that eventual and ultimate reveal so powerful where we as readers come to fully conclude that there is nothing supernatural here is because then it forces you to reflect on what the nature of that kind of behavior in your city is. Wherever you live, Wherever I live. Right. It’s like the heart of the book. I mean, there’s lots of layers to what the book is about, just is about like social contracts and what a social contract is for us at an individual level and then like a geographic community way.
Ruby: [00:10:21] There’s a concept in the book that it’s actually my friend Laura, who recommended me the book, shout out Laura back in college, the reason that she was so taken with it, which is what I always remembered, is there’s this word grosstopically. Which means the main character Borlú travels legally through. There’s like a gateway from Besźel to Ul Qoma. Over the course of the book, and he stands in front of the building in Ul Qoma that is next to his house in Besźel. But it’s not next to his house. It’s grosstypically close to his house because on a physical map they would be next to each other, but they’re not in the same city. And so the idea of like places that we don’t go or that we know aren’t for us for whatever reason, in whatever way, but that are physically near each other and is so shaped by urban development and social class and like how roads are shaped and like all the stuff that you talk about on the streets.mn podcast, it’s kind of this thing where it’s like taking this thing that we live with all the time and blowing it up to the point of absurdity and then setting a story there, which I think is what the best science fiction does.
Elissa: [00:11:43] And I love the way that that particular premise is just so strongly. Also, questions like the nature of belief in things in the book and also in our daily lives, right? Like there is for the most part, nothing that is bodily preventing people from going to these like I do like that word grosstopical. Like these, grosstopically adjacent places right In the book. It is just that people believe that they shouldn’t do it or they can’t do it, or that there will be consequences for them doing it. And that’s not to say that their beliefs aren’t true in this particular instance, right? Like the societal contract backs up those beliefs. If you breach, the entities of breach will come and find you and punish you for that. But it just makes it so much easier to see all those very tiny ways in which we are all making that decision all of the time. Right. Whether that’s like some of the examples you gave around the geographies of our neighborhoods, but also like linguistically, Right. There’s like a linguistic difference in a lot of communities. You make an assessment, right? I’m not going to walk into this restaurant if I don’t think I’m going to be able to talk to someone in my language and order something on the menu, I still could go in there. There’s nothing like preventing me from going in there, but it’s not like a welcoming experience. There are lots of signals that tell me that I am not wanted here, right? And so I love the way in which in the book China Miéville constructs all of those markers very purposefully. Right? And he talks about like the architecture for and the clothing that people wear. And there’s certainly some like stratification of religious and secular beliefs. It’s like all of those different markers that we all look for when we’re trying to figure out, like, where do we belong? Where are we welcome? And just like tying those very explicitly to this concept of like belief and belonging in.
Ruby: [00:13:33] Place, it’s just so important in the book and like, sorry that we are focusing on the end of the book, which is like a spoiler, but we warned you that I do think that breach has to be a little bit supernatural because like, how are they right there? There’s not that many of them, right? There’s like some small component they have like some extra power, right? Or is it just that they can see both cities.
Elissa: [00:13:59] I thought, okay, this is an interesting to have a different read of the end. My read of the end was that they were like, There’s not that many of us, but we’re just here and everyone ignores us all of the time, right? We don’t have to cover that much ground. We don’t have to do anything particularly supernatural. The power that we have is to be invisible, to like, exist in a space where all of us have been rendered invisible by the social contract. But also I could not have I could have perhaps read it too loosely.
Ruby: [00:14:30] You know, I may have read it too quickly. What is the there’s the name for the places that are everyone knows about that are neither Besźel or Ul Qoma. It starts with a RD.
Elissa: [00:14:44] They talk about total areas, which is like there’s an area that’s in one city or in the other city and they talk about crosshatch areas where people are walking alongside each other like you were talking about earlier, like driving alongside each other. But they’re unseen and then they have altar, which is like the word for people in the other city. Like like wherever you are, it’s total. And the total of the other city is altar to you at that moment in time. Those are the things that I.
Ruby: [00:15:14] Well, me skimming through this book is not interesting, but the plot of the book kicks off because Borlú, who is a police officer, finds a corpse and it transpires that this is a woman who was a resident of Ul Qoma and the corpse was found in Besźel. So they assume that breach occurred. But then it turns out that actually she was like in a van that was driven legally from one city to the other. So he has to go sort it out himself. And they can’t just like because this is the other thing, right? It’s like the government is kind of taking this stance that they are giving too much power to breach, which at that point you kind of think is this like supernatural force and that they need to not just like call in the supernatural power whenever they have a problem and which is like, isn’t that what we say when we talk about police abolition is like the idea that there are these people who you can invoke to solve any problem and then the problem becomes not yours, but the costs of maintaining that that force. Are people just, like, disappear and die all the time. And people’s lives are so constricted by this border that is like all borders are fake, but this one is super fake.
Elissa: [00:16:40] Yeah. And it’s so I always find it fascinating to to look at things like murder mysteries or police procedurals. Right. With this abolitionist lens. Because the thing that I find so often. Is that there is this like unconscious acknowledgement that, like, the system isn’t working. It’s not meant I would not look at this story and be like, yes, I see like, I see this intentionally written as an abolitionist story, right? Like, there are certainly stories like that. I wouldn’t say this is one of them, but you can see all the markers throughout the story, the institution of policing as like either fundamentally corrupt or fundamentally unable to solve the problem in a lot of levels. Right. So when you look at like Inspector Borlú, he like, doesn’t have the wherewithal to solve this problem and he’s sort of trying to do everything he can to pass it off to the next entity because he doesn’t have the tools he needs to solve this problem and like someone else, works the system better so that he can’t pass the problem off, right? And then it’s handed back to him, but without the resources to actually address what happened. And so you can see these like threads of there’s a little bit of like he’s the renegade, he’s like the lone whatever.
Ruby: [00:17:51] The lone good cop.
Elissa: [00:17:53] Yes. Right. Like we see these narratives all the time in our storytelling of like the lone good cop going against the corrupt policing system. Except nobody calls them that. And so he’s like, he’s trying to make this right to the best of his ability. And the institution is getting in his way, right? He’s like, I need resources. I’m going to pull in this person for support, and then he gets in trouble for doing that. He’s like documenting all of his paperwork to try to, like, get someone with more resources to address the thing and they don’t want it right? So there’s just this like repeated pattern of like the institution very much is like, we’re not interested in solving this problem. We’re not interested in giving you resources to solve this problem. That’s not what your job is.
Ruby: [00:18:32] I do think there is a level of investment in solving the case that is not present in real life policing, which I found this fantastic interview with Miéville on bldgblog, but spelled without most of the vowels. Which can we put it in the show notes? Is that available to us?
Elissa: [00:18:54] I believe so.
Ruby: [00:18:54] Great. It’s awesome. Where he talks about Miéville talks about that, he was more interested in writing about the narrative of the police procedural as a story than actual policing because Borlú is hard boiled but empathetic. So that’s kind of a fairy tale.
Elissa: [00:19:15] There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in a lot of our narratives and conflict. And just like people often have conflicting views and things and also moving through the world with those as characteristics tend to be pretty exclusionary.
Ruby: [00:19:28] And when you look at like the clearance rates of real cops versus like your laws and orders. We get into very different situations about what happens when a murder is hard to solve. Why did you want to talk about this book?
Elissa: [00:19:42] I mean, we’ve covered a lot of it in conversation. I think for me, it really I feel like this is going to be in some way restating the thing you said about, like what the best science fiction does. Right. But for me, the best science fiction allows us to reflect on things in our own world, injustices and our own world or patterns in our own world that we’re not capable of seeing when they’re so close. Right? Or we don’t have cause to step back from in a day to day way to say like, wow, that’s that’s weird. And I think there’s so much about like in sort of like the urbanist world or like transportation advocacy world or or housing advocacy world where many folks have seen at least one layer of that or many layers of that, right. Where they’re like, what is going on with our transportation system? I just like tried to be a person who didn’t drive anywhere for a week and now I can’t get anywhere in my life is just so much harder. Like why? Why is that? And then, like the more you start probing at those questions of like, why is our why is our transportation system like this? Why is our housing system like this? Where did zoning come from? Like, why does single family zoning exist? Spoiler It’s because some racist white guy in California was like, I don’t want any black people living in my neighborhood. Let’s invent single family zoning. And so science fiction can also serve as that space. Science fiction fantasy can serve as that space of like, let’s, like you said, sort of take something that is in our world right now and put it in a different context. And when the context has changed, it makes it easier to see the things that we have in common or to see like how that relates to like the life that I am living or the things that I believe. Right? For me, it’s just like it’s such a space with like promise and potential around that analysis. And then also it’s just like for me, it’s an antidote to failure of the imagination. And that’s like more general to science fiction and fantasy as a genre. But it becomes easier to see where our imaginations are failing when all the other things around the premise in a book are changing. And there’s just like there’s so much richness in terms of placemaking in this book, right? When we think about this idea of grosstopicality, I just try to turn it into a noun, and I’m not sure that that worked.
Ruby: [00:21:54] You crushed it.
Elissa: [00:21:57] And Transportation systems are just like so deeply threaded throughout this book, right? Like they talk there’s like a section in one of the chapters where they talk about the fact that, like, it was really important for them to negotiate like a crosshatch joint territory for like a train station because everybody needs to get in the trains in this particular station. And there’s like these bits and pieces throughout the book where Inspector Borlú is like making a choice about how he gets around and people are like commenting on it or judging him on it. There’s this like one moment where he says something or like thinks to himself. Like, I always wanted to live somewhere where I could watch the foreign trains or like the trains in another country Right? And so there’s just this this way in which cityness and transportation is so embedded throughout the book in ways that are both so similar to how like silliness and transportation exist in cities in real life and also are so, so different. And I just like love seeing that, but I’m a nerd, so.
Ruby: [00:22:58] I think that’s super cool.
Elissa: [00:23:00] What do you think about the, like political elements in the book? Right? They had all these different there were the Unificationists. I wrote down some of them Unificationists and True Citizens. And then there’s like The Net Block. And that block had like divisions and fractures and then like, I don’t know, I was so interested to see all of those things alongside some of the like social institutions like policing, alongside some of the corporations, also social institutions, what do we call them?
Ruby: [00:23:28] Sure.
Elissa: [00:23:29] Right. But like the corporate power struggles that are like so many things that are so relatable or like easy to understand, right? Like, even though we’re not getting a ton of information in most instances about like, who these different factions are, they feel really relatable and really digestible. You’re like, Oh, there’s people having feelings about things, right? And I don’t have very smart things to say about it, but I feel like you might, as someone who is more rooted in Marxist theory and.
Ruby: [00:23:53] Like, Oh no, I just said the word Marxism.
Elissa: [00:23:58] I take it back.
Ruby: [00:24:00] I read the Communist Manifesto once. I’m very smart, Put it in the newspaper that I’m very smart please. The thing that really stood out to me was so there’s kind of two poles of political ideological ideology in both cities which go from unification ism to nationalism. Both the Unificationists and the nationalists are working together across the cities. And that idea of like international nationalism is frighteningly important right now as we see. You know, nationalists in the US and nationalists in Britain and Turkey and Brazil, India all working together and learning from each other that their their nationalism doesn’t prevent them from learning from other nationalists, because nationalism is just a face of fascism in many ways, which is a much. Deeper ideology then than the specific things that make a place a place. It’s that this place is mine and it’s not yours. And even when the mine changes who the me is, that ideology still translates. So some some character is like surprised that the nationalists are working together. And I just think it’s really astute that that is the case. There’s also this bit about how like all the radical sects are more informants than they are actual activists. Which is both like very legit. When you look at like COINTELPRO, the way that the FBI has put so much energy in the CIA into embedding with activist movements, leftist activist movements to discredit them, but they don’t talk that much about nationalists in the police force, which I think, Miéville would write it differently today. Maybe I’m just projecting my own political journey onto him. But the rot in the police force feels almost like anodyne or quaint, like it’s the same kind of rot you would see. I mean, because it’s it’s about police procedurals. It’s not about actual police in something very old and not really informed by like as a white person. What feels more recent to me, I suppose abolition is a very old ideology end of thought.
Elissa: [00:26:34] I was gonna say, but I feel like the narratives around police procedurals haven’t really changed that much.
Ruby: [00:26:40] Yeah, Anodyne might not be the right word. It’s more.
Elissa: [00:26:43] But there is something like 1950s noir pulpy about the way that this book reads, where it’s like it almost feels like he’s an independent contractor, right? Like he’s a he’s just like an investigator, like a private investigator, but plopped down within this institution. But not like, fundamentally changed to match the realities of the institution. It’s very much the romanticized, like, private investigator vibe, like, I’m going to do whatever I want. I’m going to call in my friends, I’m going to do things off the books or like.
Ruby: [00:27:15] And he’s right his instincts are right. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the police are, the police institution is. Flawed and dangerous to his investigation because it is bureaucratic and maybe like polluted by politics instead of like a pure search for the truth.
Elissa: [00:27:41] As opposed to being a genesis of a political opinion that in fact, influences all of our other systems.
Ruby: [00:27:47] Precisely. And that’s the thing that, like I read really differently now than I did 15 years ago or whatever. I don’t know how Miéville would feel about that. Can I read to you from this interview?
Elissa: [00:28:00] Oh, yes. I would love to hear more about it.
Ruby: [00:28:03] Because this was something I thought was really smart. So he’s he’s talking about this Tolkien quote about having a cordial dislike for allegory. So I’m going to paraphrase, just like cut out some parts of these sentences while I’m reading it. But basically it’s the notion of having a master code you can apply to a text and which in some ways solves that text, at least in my mind. Allegory implies a specifically correct reading, a kind of 1 to 1 reduction of the text. One still hears people talking about what does the text mean? And I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things. Ok man.
Elissa: [00:28:41] That’s very smart.
Ruby: [00:28:43] It’s almost like you’re a professional writer or something.
Elissa: [00:28:49] Internationally awarded lauded.
Ruby: [00:28:51] Yeah. So then he kind of goes on to talking about metaphor and how there’s not an intention that there’s one meaning inside the text or that anything is meant to represent a single thing, which I think is really interesting. And I really love this interview because some of the stuff that he says makes it so clear that he is so British specifically, I believe he’s English. So the thing that I really remembered from the book, besides the idea of grosstopically, was this thing about Borlú is talking to his assistant Corwi, and he’s saying that he went to a conference in Berlin called Policing Split Cities, and he says they had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin and Basel and Okayama and Corwi just replies, Fuck. And he says, I know, I know. That’s what we said at the time. Totally missing the point. My supervisor said it wasn’t just a misunderstanding of our status, it was an insult to Besźel. So I think that idea of the cities not being that this is not like real places, and then this interviewer also called out that passage, which made me feel so smart. But he says that you see things that are about divided cities and you think therefore they must be similar in some way. Whereas in fact, in a lot of these situations it seems to me that and certainly in the question of Palestine, the problem is not one population being unseen, it’s one population being very, very aggressively seen by the armed wing of another population. Mm hmm. So I think that he has I mean, I just. I think Mehlville is really smart. And also, I heard from a friend who took a class with him that he’s really nice, so that’s cool. But I think the idea that, like, this text is not representing every single thing that he’s ever thought or has to say, but he’s kind of taking this one angle on the idea of a split or divided city and playing with it in this very elastically, large way without saying like, and this is real and it’s just like this I think is really cool because that is present in the book. Breach is an armed wing of a population that is aggressively seeing everyone while remaining unseen, but everyone gets to wash their hands of it. Everybody gets to have the fantasy of, Oh well, that’s breach. That’s I can’t change that. That’s breach. Except the unification, who believe that a different world is possible.
Elissa: [00:31:35] There was something in what you said that made me want to talk about misinformation. So I’m thinking about misinformation as like a tool of fascism and nationalism and misinformation as like something that is to a degree represented throughout this book, right. When you think about. So for those who haven’t read the book, Ruby mentioned earlier, right. Like there’s these two cities that are in the same place and they have sort of divided geography. And there’s this slightly more than rumor becomes kind of an urban legend and then is retracted of this, the idea of like a third city called Orsini, which is basically the idea, is that there are places where people in Besźel think that it’s part of Ul Qoma and people in Ul Qoma. I think that’s part of Besźel. And so there’s like this third city in the ether that everybody else thinks is alter is in the other city. And so it’s just like exists. And there are people who have who have sort of found a way out of being in the like dichotomy of these two city states. I think they’re city states.
Ruby: [00:32:35] Yeah. They’re not in a country.
Elissa: [00:32:37] Yeah, I don’t think they are. I think they are like countries unto themselves. I think they’re city states. So anyway, but it turns out that this like the historian, archaeologist, I can’t remember his particular title researcher who like posited that has since retracted it and basically a corporation uses it to their advantage. This like rumor or this like urban legend that won’t die uses it to their advantage in trying to manipulate people who are living in the city into doing the things that they want them to do. And it just like there’s something about the way that that ties so closely with some of the nationalism in the book that just feels like so present in the time that we are living in. And so there’s some things about this book that I can imagine being written differently and like that piece maybe even playing a larger role, like I can imagine trying to write that book today and being like the misinformation here is going to be like like it is a huge part of the plot and maybe an even larger part of the plot, given how we’ve seen all those different systems relate.
Ruby: [00:33:35] So but there is something a little supernatural happening because the ruins are supernatural, right? They’re finding stuff in the archaeology that doesn’t make any sense.
Elissa: [00:33:46] There’s a couple of things about the archaeology that don’t make sense, right? There’s like this idea.
Ruby: [00:33:51] It’s not in an order that makes sense.
Elissa: [00:33:54] Yeah, it’s not in an order that makes sense. But also they talk about how, Oh, Ul Qoma got all the artifacts. There’s none in Besźel, just zero. And it’s just like, I don’t know, there’s something in the reader and me just feel so skeptical about that. Like this idea that you could have two cities that like, share the geography in the way that they do and like, there’s just nothing archaeologically in one city and all of it’s in the other.
Ruby: [00:34:19] One thing that is not explored in this book, because that’s not the scope of the book. And like the question of like, is Orsini real? Like what is breach like exists until the last 20 pages, 30 pages. If you look at a real city, like you were saying about like, why do we have zoning laws? It’s like, well, you can go find out why are these two cities how they are, why are the borders where they are, why are the artifacts in Ul Qoma, why is like one places seems to be more Cyrillic like one like I think Ul Qoma, they write in Cyrillic letters and in Besźel they write in Roman script like so like why did those cultural differences develop and who put them there That is left a little bit formless and is not. The question of the book is answering, which is fine. Every book doesn’t have to answer every question, but I think that is one of the things that feels the most like not fantastical but unrealistic of like in real life, there would be a reason that all the resources are in one city and not the other, because that’s how resource allocation works.
Elissa: [00:35:23] Yeah, and they do touch on some of that a little bit. There’s a passage where they talk about like, well, these languages like used to be more the same. It’s the beginning of chapter five. I found it. But they talk about. Like if you don’t know much about the two languages, they seem very different and their scripts seem very different and they’re sound like everything about them seems very different. But if you go back far enough, they have a common ancestor, but information about that is gone. We’re not going to talk about that at some point. Someone made a decision to make these things distinct. And so I think he does do a good job of like alluding to some of that, like someone somewhere made some decisions in order to make to force, not force, but like encourage these two societies to be more distinct. Like you said, it’s not like the book isn’t about that choice. It’s about like, how is that playing out in a relatively present day type context? And how are people like dealing with the ramifications of a decision that was made long ago, which, like many of them won’t know about, right? Like in the same way that most of us don’t like? Think about the ways that our cities and our places and our other jurisdictions are constructed. We’re just like going about trying to like, earn enough money to eat and stay sheltered and like have some joy.
Ruby: [00:36:42] I did find the word that I was looking for before descends or the disputed zones. So this is the thing, right? Is this idea of Orsini like in this passage, it’s saying Orsini is the secret city that runs things. And in other places they’re saying like Orsini is at war with breach, and then it’s like Orsini is breach. And we kind of find out that Orsini doesn’t exist. And there’s all these things where there’s like these American business interests in Ul Qoma and these Canadian and academics in Besźel, because Besźel is like embargoed by the US who kind of treat breach as like, like this is made up, right? Like this is this is fake. Like we’re just indulging local superstition. We’re just going to kind of, you know, we’re not inculcated with this. And I think when you think about huge social structures, like you think about like going to a place where slavery is legal or going to a place with apartheid or something foreign to us right now, slavery is not actually abolished in the United States, but this like in-your-face thing that is so like anathema to us, you get this feeling of like, well, why aren’t people. In open rebellion. Like, why does anyone let this stand? Why do people let this happen? How? And also, if you’re an evil corporation, how can I exploit this bizarre superstition or this weird way of doing things to my own advantage? And I think that’s what we’re saying, or that’s like the mirror to society thing, right? Of like, what are the things in our own society that we are incapable of seeing past to another way that things could be?
Elissa: [00:38:26] That feels like a really good closing thought. Thank you, Ruby, for all of your insights and your pre reading about the reading. I feel very impressed. I read my books in a little bit of a vacuum. So I appreciate that you are a reader who seeks out additional information.
Ruby: [00:38:45] Well, and I was talking about that. I as as my edition that I got at Majors and Quinn used says that the city and the city is now a major BBC TV series starring David Morrissey, which I intended to watch and then didn’t.
Elissa: [00:39:01] And we can have a post podcast viewing party.
Ruby: [00:39:04] I would know how that was all pronounced if I’d watch that.
Elissa: [00:39:08] Or at least someone else’s best guess So. Well, I want to thank you very much, Ruby, for taking time out of your evening to join me for this discussion. It has been really lovely. I hope we have a chance to do it again soon. I will close us out by letting folks know that if you would like to read the next book in a couple of months, we are going to read The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd, which is a book about maps and what maps mean and what maps do for us. If you are a library nerd or a science nerd or a like a museum sciences nerd, you will probably or you’re like one of those people who has a map hanging somewhere in your house because you think they look cool. You will probably enjoy this book. Thanks so much. It has been great and I will talk to you all in a couple of months. Bye Ruby.
Ruby: [00:39:56] Bye. Thanks for having me.
Ian: [00:40:00] Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Streets.MN podcast. This show is released under a Creative Commons attribution non commercial non derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you’re not altering it and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted by Elissa Schufman and was edited and transcribed by Tim Marino, who just joined the podcast team. Everybody say hi to Tim in the comments. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, take care.
I read this book a few years back and adored it. Really enjoyed revisiting it by listening to this conversation! The premise of the book is genius, it works as just a strange fictional city to explore and as a stand in for so many social issues. I really need to read more Mieville, I also loved Perdido Street Station and Embassytown by him.
Thinking about examples of breach in our real-world communities is very very interesting. There are lots of everyday examples like the one Elissa mentioned of not going into a restaurant that you don’t think will speak your language. But I’m also thinking about high-profile times that breaching has been used as a tool, like when protest marches walk onto an interstate. That’s an area that exists within our geographic city, but as pedestrians we usually aren’t allowed; and disrupting that social contract brings more attention to the protest.